Teresa of Avila was born in 1515 in Ávila, Spain. Her paternal grandfather, Juan Sánchez de Toledo, was a marrano (Jewish convert to Christianity). When Teresa's father was a child, Juan was condemned by the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly returning to the Jewish faith, but he was able to reassume a Christian identity. Her father, Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, was a successful wool merchant and one of the wealthiest men in Avila. Her father bought a knighthood and successfully assimilated into Christian society.
Previously married to
Catalina del Peso y Henao with whom he had three children, in 1509, Sánchez de Cepeda married Teresa's mother, Beatriz de Ahumada y Cuevas, in Gotarrendura.
Teresa's mother, who was especially keen to raise her daughter as a pious Christian. Teresa was fascinated by accounts of the lives of the saints, and ran away from home at age seven with her brother Rodrigo to find martyrdom among the Moors. Her uncle stopped them as he was returning to the town, having spotted the two outside the town walls.
When Teresa was 11 her mother died, leaving Teresa grief-stricken. This prompted her to embrace a deeper devotion to the Virgin Mary as her spiritual mother. Teresa was also enamored of popular fiction, which at the time was primarily medieval tales of knighthood, and works about caring for one's appearance. Teresa was sent for her education to the Augustinian nuns at Ávila.
In the monastery ("cloister" is an area where only monastics have access), she suffered greatly from illness. Early in her sickness, she experienced periods of religious ecstasy through the use of the devotional book Tercer abecedario espiritual, translated as the Third Spiritual Alphabet (published in 1527 and written by Francisco de Osuna). This work, following the example of similar writings of medieval mystics, consisted of directions for examinations of conscience and for spiritual self-concentration and inner contemplation (known in mystical nomenclature as oratio recollectionis or oratio mentalis). She also employed other mystical ascetic works such as the Tractatus de oratione et meditatione of Saint Peter of Alcantara, and perhaps many of those upon which Saint Ignatius of Loyola based his Spiritual Exercises and possibly the Spiritual Exercises themselves.
She claimed that during her illness she rose from the lowest stage, "recollection", to the "devotions of silence" or even to the "devotions of ecstasy", which was one of perfect union with God (see § Mysticism). During this final stage, she said she frequently experienced a rich "blessing of tears." As the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin became clear to her, she says she came to understand the awful terror of sin and the inherent nature of original sin. She also became conscious of her own natural impotence in confronting sin, and the necessity of absolute subjection to God.
Around 1556, various friends suggested that her newfound knowledge was diabolical, not divine. She began to inflict various tortures and mortifications of the flesh upon herself. But her confessor, the Jesuit Saint Francis Borgia, reassured her of the divine inspiration of her thoughts. On St. Peter's Day in 1559, Teresa became firmly convinced that Jesus Christ presented himself to her in bodily form, though invisible. These visions lasted almost uninterrupted for more than two years. In another vision, a seraph drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing an ineffable spiritual-bodily pain.
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it...
This vision was the inspiration for one of Bernini's most famous works, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa at Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
The memory of this episode served as an inspiration throughout the rest of her life, and motivated her lifelong imitation of the life and suffering of Jesus, epitomized in the motto usually associated with her: Lord, either let me suffer or let me die